A breakthrough in 2023?

Exoskeletons, robots, prostheses, computers, electrodes attached to muscles or nerves… the old dream of controlling machines by thought alone is gradually advancing. So much so that it will overturn the next year? We turned to experts.

It’s a bit like the flying car: we’ve been talking about it for decades, science fiction fantasizes about it, but concrete applications are still waiting. Mind-based technology – or brain-computer interface – is an old dream still struggling to break into the mainstream. Because the difficulty of “reading” to turn thoughts into commands and actions is real. Fabien Lotte, director of research at the Bordeaux Computer Science Research Laboratory, says: “Most brain-computer interfaces work, but they work poorly. »

Two parallel paths develop. On the one hand, the most reliable option, but also the most extreme, consists of drilling one or more holes in the cranial box and placing one or more sensors in the brain in strategic places. With all the risks. The alternative is non-invasive and therefore less risky. This involves detecting brain activity using EEG. That is, an examination that records electrical signals from the brain through multiple electrodes placed on the head. It is a simple helmet that you wear completely painlessly and without heavy medical procedures. But the result is less certain.

From a dream in the 1970s to a reality in the 21ste century

“Thought-controlled technology began to be seriously discussed in the 1970s by a few visionary scientists.Jérémie Mattout, Inserm researcher at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center explains. Then there were the first demonstrations of the feasibility of such a brain-computer interface. But it was the beginning of the 21st yeare century to see the first concrete examples thanks to the convergence of advances in neuroscience, sensors, computing, and computing power. But we shouldn’t get too excited: the technologies haven’t left the labs yet. We are still in the research phase. »

“We’ve seen very good demonstrations recently in the US, for example, with implants that control motorized arms controlled by the motor cortex. But as you can see, it is not used in everyday life yet. »

Jeremy Mattout

Inserm-Lyon Neurology Research Center

Dean Burnett, British neurologist, author Idiot Brain (2016) and Happy Brain (2019), takes a closer look at thought-driven technology and analyzes the situation quite similarly. “Technology that can be controlled by implants placed in the brain has been around for decades. So it’s nothingeetc. new. Things have certainly evolved and gotten a lot better since then.liones. But it seems to me that this is due to advances in computers and software rather than a revolution in our knowledge of neural activity and sensory technology. »

Great progress has been made in recent years

“The first area of ​​application of thought-driven technology is obviously health, Highlights Jérémie Mattout. The goal is to help people with disabilities regain mobility or communication skills. Last we sawement of trefor example, wonderful demonstrations in the US with implants that control motorized arms controlled by the motor cortex. But as you can see, it is not used in everyday life yet. »

And to add: “MorningeRe-establishment of connection, some progress also tres effective. But Dother programs are envisaged, this time using non-invasive interfaces, which do not require surgery. For example, for motor rehabilitation after a strokeoff. LThe hope is to allow the arm muscles to reconnect thanks to an interface that connects to the stimulating electrodescupbigger and faster ventilationsome motor skills. »

Video gameso exoskeletons, neuroprotesound, drone, film, etc.

When it comes to brain-machine interfaces, the craziest experiments regularly make noise. Like these drones, these robots, these airplanes, or these video games that we control with our thoughts with non-invasive technology and simple commands (go up, down, right, left…). Recently, the Chinese company Xiaomi has also imagined a headband that can be worn on the head to control the home with the mind. In 2019, a British researcher created a short film. The Momenttheir scenes can change according to the brain activity of viewers wearing electrodes that record brain activity.

“Implants placed inside the brain are currently not possible for the general public without major pathology. And there is no precision in the non-invasive system. »

Abderrahmane Kheddar

CNRS – Academy of Technology

Captured with EEG helmets, the emotions felt by these people will affect the 27-minute film, changing scenes, music and even animations. “The film changes depending on what you think, and what you think changes the film, Richard Ramchurn explained in an interview. It becomes a part of your mind. »

Barriers limiting deployment still exist

“Implants placed inside the brain are currently not possible for the general public without major pathology. And there is no precision in the non-invasive system. It was as if an orchestra was playing behind a 1-meter-thick concrete wall, and we were trying to restore the score by listening with a stethoscope.”Abderrahmane Kheddar, research director of CNRS and member of the Academy of Technology.

He adds: “Furthermore, some leaders in brain-machine interface management are not delivering the expected benefits. Take the exoskeleton as an example. It is not for nothing that people have a soft shell, and the largest hard-shelled animal on Earth is the coconut crab. There is a natural physical cause, the physics of effect. The latesteResearch is also moving towards soft exoskeletons that follow the shape of the body. »

What will happen if we receive an implant in our brain?

Startups have made great strides in this area in recent years. We can refer to NextMind, CTRL-Labs or Neuralink. Founded by Elon Musk in 2017, it specializes in neuroscience and brain-machine interfaces. He developed a chip about the size of a coin, about one centimeter wide, and connected to different parts of the brain with wires 20 times thinner than a human hair.

“Neuralink talks a lot, but I think it’s a lot of hype. Better to wait for concrete demos to arrive. »

Dean Burnett


In addition, Neuralink claims to have found a process to implant this sensor in the brain in a very simple way. In 2020, it was shown on a pig. Human trials are now planned for 2023. In the end, Elon Musk hopes that his technology will help treat brain diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s or dementia. His last wish? Let him “download” all his memory to save his memories. But we’re more into science fiction than neuroscience these days.

“Once we agree to put a chip in the brain, the results of brain-computer interfaces can be spectacular. Abderrahmane knows Kheddar. But this is also true for the implantation of electrodes on nerves, as demonstrated in October 2022 by a group from Inria Montpellier. Agile project. Electrodes were attached to the median and radial nerves in the arms of two quadriplegic patients. Using an external box connected to itself to electrically stimulate the muscles, they were able to use their hands well enough to pick up a can of soda or a fork and carry it in their mouth. We touch bionic man there. »

What to expect in 2023 and beyond?

“There is always the possibility of a major breakthrough that no one expects, and it could happen this year as well as in the years to come. Dean Burnett believes. Neuralink talks a lot, but I feel like it’s a lot of hype. Better to wait for concrete demos to arrive. As for mainstream adoption of brain-computer interfaces, that won’t happen until the technology becomes affordable and requires less effort than the gesture itself. » Lighting a lamp in the room with a thought is not for now.

“In general, we understood how the brain works. Today, the challenge is in sensors, their miniaturization and adoption. »

Abderrahmane Kheddar

CNRS – Academy of Technology

And in the field of health research and applications? There is Abderrahmane Kheddar “I feel that we have reached a plateau at the moment. SystemeIt works well with brain-implanting implants and long-term patient learning. But non-invasive alternatives lack subtlety. In general, we understood how the brain works. Today, the challenge is in sensors, their miniaturization and adoption. I am very surprised to see that the idea of ​​having implants in the brain is not so shocking to the younger generations. Big improvements can come from here.there is »

Neurofeedback, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, vigilance…

Finally, the brain-machine interface is gradually distilled into new areas such as “vigilance, mental load and focus, List of Jérémie Mattout. The process of neurofeedback allows you to train the brain to work better by following research with non-invasive technology.es activity during the process dto learn. For example, we envisioned a video game that is actually a tool to assess or combat attention deficit disorder in children. »

“We can also consider applications for the military to ensure that a soldier has the cognitive ability to perform a specific critical task at a given time. Or to check that the person driving the car is alert enough and not falling asleep. » Applications that are certainly less flashy than “loading your brain” or flying a plane with one thought, but have the advantage of being more concrete.

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